Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un meet: US president blusters as North Korean leader shows him up on world stage
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un signed a 'comprehensive' joint document at the Singapore Summit.
For all his bluster and rhetoric about being the world's "best dealmaker", Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States, has been upended by a man half his age on a historic occasion that failed to create history. Watching the US president labour at a subsequent news conference to prove that he got more than he conceded, Kim Jong-un might be tempted to stifle a smirk. The North Korean leader achieved all he set out to achieve in return for some promises that are spectacularly thin on specifics.
Given the Kim regime's chequered past, this wasn't really a surprise. What should worry the world is that a delusional Trump has sold his bargaining chips really cheap in exchange for some bragging rights about how he—as the first sitting US president to hold a meeting with a North Korean leader—has been instrumental in moving the world away from the precipice of nuclear war to lasting peace through dialogue.
The problem lies in the gulf of difference between what Trump has managed to achieve as opposed to what he believes he has achieved. This is, after all, a president whose stint at the White House has been marked by an inversion of all diplomatic norms to the extent that treaty allies and strategic partners are getting used to his tongue-lashings, while murderous dictators heading adversarial nations are being treated with fulsome praise and back-slapping. This impulsive, personality-driven diplomacy, where trust assumes greater significance than verification and rigour, might work on occasions but more often than not is likely to fall short of achieving policy goals.
There is no doubt that in itself, the Singapore Summit will go down as one of history's momentous turnarounds. As Kim rightly said: "It was not easy to get here. The past worked as fetters on our limbs, and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward. But we overcame all of them, and we are here today."
The fact that it was held after a period of heightened tension following North Korea's repeated testing of nuclear devices and intercontinental ballistic missile systems adds to the significance.
Yet, the documented solution that was reached after a series of talks and a whole lot of choreographed handshakes and posing for the camera has a strong sense of déjà vu. Even if we are to assume that Kim has a higher motivation compared to his predecessors in achieving a denuclearised Korean Peninsula and some sort of normalcy in the bilateral ties between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)—as North Korea is officially known—with the US, there is no guarantee that Trump will show the necessary commitment and rigour to make the deal work.
On the other hand, regardless of what has been written and signed on paper, the world has been witness to repeated instances of duplicity from North Korea on upholding commitments that were more detailed and specific than what has been arrived at in Singapore. So, when Trump tells a room full of journalists that the North Korean leader has shown “his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and will get started as soon as he lands in Pyongyang, even the most die-hard optimist might struggle to believe it.
The text of the joint statement reads: "Reaffirming the 27 April Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula." It adds that "president Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un commit to implement the stipulations in this joint statement fully and expeditiously. The United States and the DPRK commit to hold follow-on negotiations led by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and a relevant high-level DPRK official, at the earliest possible date to implement the outcomes of the US-DPRK summit."
The statement—apart from being vague, generic and devoid of any timelines—is more a declaration of intent than a roadmap for step-by-step denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. There are no specifics on dismantling the nuclear test sites in North Korea and destroying existing arsenal, and no commitment towards giving up missile tests.
Trump wants the world to believe that Kim will act in good faith, and insisted during the press conference that he "feels" and "thinks" that the North Korean dictator is more eager than him to get rid of the nuclear arsenal.
"I know when somebody want's to deal... I just feel, my instinct, my talent… I think he wants to make a deal. We will know very soon because the negotiations are continuing," Trump said at the presser in Singapore. On being asked why he did not get a commitment to complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation, Trump said there was not time to get to that. "I'm here for one day. The process is now going to take place."
North Korea's sketchy track record
In his unshaken trust in Kim's intentions, Trump's ignorance of North Korea's past conduct is evident. The joint declaration on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in 20 January, 1992, stated: "The South and the North shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons" and "shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes", "shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities" and both nations "in order to verify the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, shall conduct inspections of the objects selected by the other side and agreed upon between the two sides…"
In 1993, the US and DPRK released a joint declaration agreeing to give assurances "against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons; peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including impartial application of full-scope safeguards, mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs; and support for the peaceful reunification of Korea".
Following the six-nation talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear weapons in 2005, the six-party joint declaration read: "The six parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the six-party talks is the verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner."
In between these solemn declarations, the North Koreans have developed a new generation of more powerful nuclear bombs and tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that are believed to be capable enough to target US mainland. On being asked about the possibility of Kim gaming the US again, Trump's reply left the journalists in splits but did little to allay concerns.
Trump says in 6 months he might find out he was wrong about Kim Jong Un but won’t say so. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) June 12, 2018
However, Trump seems to have got at least one thing right: His assessment of the 34-year-old Kim as a "very smart", "very talented" bloke and a "hard negotiator" is not far off the mark. In return for the promises of denuclearisation, Kim got Trump to stop the war games with South Korea because they are apparently "too expensive and provocative". The US president even hinted at removing US troops from South Korea: A key demand of North Korea and even China.
"The war games are very expensive; we paid for a big majority of them, we fly in bombers from Guam… That's a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes, it's very expensive," he said at the post-summit news conference.
While Trump was busy insisting that he was a winner, dictator Kim, who runs a brutally repressive regime in a poverty-ridden nation, emerged from the summit as a "world leader" in his own right and even managed to legitimise North Korea's stature as a nuclear-armed nation. No prizes for guessing who cut the better deal.
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